Author: Dr Jopie de Beer

COVID-19 virus is affecting our world in very significant ways. Not only are we extremely worried about our own and others' health and survival, we are also confronted with sudden and drastic changes to our working environment*. Meetings have turned into Skype calls, face-to-face conversations into WhatsApps, and living rooms into virtual boardrooms.

Working virtually, although it has its benefits, is not as easy or efficient to manage. To make working virtually work for the employer and the employee, the basics of human hardwiring, human needs, and individual personality differences have to be kept in mind. In stable economic conditions, without the chaotic impact of COVID-19, identifying and supporting each employee who has to or needs to work virtually would allow close attention to be given to all these factors. However, at the moment organisations do not have the luxury to do thorough planning and to develop support systems.

The extensive literature on virtual work illustrates that it has both benefits and dilemmas. Most are clear that not all people find working virtually equally easy and that there are prerequisites for making it work. These requirements have to form part of how leadership and management adapt their style to these new organisational requirements. They have to put particular energy into the following:

Ensure and retain the employee’s trust in the leadership

In times of real/expected high trauma in an organisation, the employees expect their leaders to be decisive- and action-oriented. Above all, they need to trust that the leaders care about their employees as much or even more than themselves. Any proof to the contrary will neutralise their willingness to do their best in- or outside the company.

Work hard at retaining and calibrating the employee’s work focus

It is impossible for any employee to provide the output expected by the company if they are not sure what it is that they have to and should produce. The expected output should be contracted very clearly. Also, clarity on the timelines and how the output is measured have to be ensured. The mindset has to be that virtual work is “business as usual” and that the output they can achieve aligns with their abilities and responsibilities as well as the strategy of the company.

Communication

We know that there are few things more important in leadership than communication, communication, and communication. The dialogue should be clear, appropriate, positive, yet realistic and focused. Keep in mind that many people are now required to work off-site, not because of own volition but because of the risk of the Covid-19 virus. They are on their own and possibly scared. Make sure you understand their need for clarity, action, pragmatism, and care. Communicate often and clearly. Be available for questions and comments. Make sure to acknowledge their input and how they are contributing to the team and the organisation.

A sense of “us”

One of the reasons why individuals, teams, and departments have historically worked close to each other, is because it creates a “sense of us”. Business and decisions are often discussed at the watercooler or in the passages and the “way we do things” and “who we are” to a large extent also happens in such a context. Those fellow employees who are always late, work very hard, show a sense of humour, or are exceptionally knowledgeable are all cues and signals of the workplace community and each person’s place in it. Working virtually limits this insight and, understandably, people may start feeling uninformed, like outsiders and lonely. With these emotions may come doubt, disengagement, or even despair - none of which the employer wants to happen.

Leaders and managers should purposefully create opportunities for collaboration and even fun. It is essential that the “sense of us” be continued in all possible ways.

Regular updates on how the company is doing, human stories, birthdays, photos, projects won or lost, recent initiatives, innovations, actions, plans, and decisions can help to retain the sense of being part of a bigger community and retaining your place in it. Use social media, virtual team systems, and even virtual competitions and games. Who knows, as South Africans we could even invent ways to have a virtual braai!

Therefore, the coronavirus will be forcing us to change many personal and corporate habits. It will not be without pain. Technology has however allowed us to implement alternative work methods. Most important though is that technology on its own will not guarantee that workplace and financial targets be achieved or ensure a happy and engaged workforce. We have to keep in mind the basic human needs for trust, information, and community. These require a different mindset from all in management and leadership. It is, however, once you understand human needs, not too difficult to do. After all, it is true in life that what we know and understand becomes much easier to manage.


* it’s important to note here that this article recognizes that there are numerous crucial services that do not have the option available to work from home. This article focusses on the specific jobs that have the luxury of working remotely.